This album is one of the more lovely things I’ve ever tried to appraise. The Unthanks manage to pull off the most well-worn melodies and unsurprising cadences and make them dreamily compelling where they could easily have been cliched. They unearth the dark trad. arr. horrors of those certain folk tales and wrap them in their melodious brogues, hopeful strings and wry jazzy brass. And it’s exactly this that so conflicts me; the thing is beautiful though abject, dreamy even as documentary. Here’s the Tender Coming is a pleasant ride through misery.
The auld box opens up with a slightly leaden madrigal, “Because He Was A Bonnie Lad” – like Fleet Foxes if they had been on the Brown Ale – but it sets the period well enough, placing us into a thoughtful Victoriana, which isn’t really a limiting thing. Folk is, I think, better by nature at timelessness than pop; if it weaves in enough universal concerns – love, loss, lucklessness – you find the old-moded and the traditional resonating to your life.
Vocal lead is shared between Rachel and Becky Unthank, with Becky’s strong, deeper, jazz-soaked style turning her sides of “Sad February”, “Annachie Gordon”, “Lucky Gilchrist” into smooth dramas. (In fact, Becky’s tones would fit very well in the calmer strains of trip-hop.) Rachel’s breathy, rawer tone feels more honest, far more the village narrator that the lyrics mostly suggest.
The subject matter of the lyrics is mostly crushingly emotive – a fishing boat disaster; Romeos and Juliets and the economic marriage; dead friends and miner’s sicknesses. There’s a general concern for the plain, plaintive losses that the historical record never much bothered with. While the vocal counterpoint can lend these a lamenting, personable tragedy, often there’s instead a tangle between content and form. Even where they sing first-person, embodying the stories, it can feel like reportage. In places I get the same dischordant feel that artistic war photography can draw; I’m troubled by their mastery and by my reactions to it.
Wait; from the above you’ll get the impression that The Unthanks are somehow madly, disgustingly contrasting the tragic and the jaunty – they don’t, ever. What I mean instead is that there’s big, unsettled contrasts between the humble and the grand; the personal and the abstract; the tragic and the painless throughout. A number of the songs build to some intricate and sweeping refrain – see tracks 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 – and I am trying to read this as representing the intense emotions of the characters.
Perhaps what I hear as jazz comes out of the album’s sheer precision – “Annachie Gordon” and, say, “Living By The Water” are the most polished folk you’re ever likely to hear. The former is, too, the cutest portrait of star-cross’d heartbreak and death, the xylophone and radiant guitar line sweeping us away unsuspecting. That said, “Lucky Gilchrist”, an Unthanks original, written to eulogize a friend, is powerfully direct in its jazz, and almost irreverent – he’s said to be “not so lucky”; “camp and yet angry.” I can’t hold aught against it’s invention, or their expression. It’s also partly the strings’ fault – alternately stately and sanguine, they seem to be commenting on their songs in a “Wasn’t it dreadful back then, so long, long ago…” affectation.
The epitome of the album, in both its persuasive beauty and its contrast of story and presentation, is “The Testimony of Patience Kershaw”, The Unthanks’ setting of a 1970s ballad about a Victorian miner girl interviewed by a reformist. It’s stately and also entirely humble. It’s fatalistic and hopeful. It’s first-person, enchanting and above all deeply strange; after confessing her heartbreaking daily routine to us, Patience ends the song by looking a century ahead in time and giving us all the eye: she sees somewhere where men and women are at last “walking side by side.”
Overall, this album is wryly, bottomlessly, gorgeous. It sleeps through itself, and invites you to slumber with it. But maybe folk should leave dreams to pop and nightmares to metal. Maybe the worst way to be written off, written out, is to be made nice.
© Gavin Leech, Music Vice